MLive looks back on some of the biggest sports stories of 2021. Check back every day as we count towards the start of the new year.
ALLEN PARK – Barely 23 days after the start of the year, at precisely 6:09 p.m., the earth shook in the Lion Nation.
Matthew Stafford, the best quarterback in modern franchise history, a former No. 1 overall pick who has won more games in this city than any other caller – and, yes, has lost more games than anyone, too – had requested an exchange out of Detroit.
Stafford was ranked first in the 2009 draft, then rewrote every page of the franchise’s record books. But he was never particularly close to toppling the long-struggling Lions, and defeat had reached him. And once Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn were fired after another embarrassment at Thanksgiving late last year, Stafford, now 32 and with a lot of mileage on that body – Lions football has a way of you do that – decided that he just was not ready for another rebuild.
So, in a tearful meeting with owner Sheila Ford Hamp and team president Rod Wood in January, he demanded a trade out of Detroit.
With no coach or GM and interview processes for the two barely underway, the Lions Bras told Stafford they would do their best to accommodate him, but the conversation should be over. postponed until new management is in place. Then Ford, Wood, and new special adviser Chris Spielman set out to find the right people to heal an organization that had fractured under the failing leadership of the Quinntricia era.
They picked their new GM first, choosing Brad Holmes, an off-the-beaten-path hire who has gone from a PR intern to director of college scouting with the Los Angeles Rams. He led that team’s draft efforts for nearly a decade, helped rebuild their foundations with picks like Todd Gurley, Aaron Donald and Cooper Kupp, and traded for a quarterback named Jared Goff who would ultimately lead. LA at the Super Bowl.
Days after hiring, the Lions paired Holmes with an even more original head coaching candidate. Dan Campbell was the assistant head coach at New Orleans, but had never been a coordinator and got no interview with any other team. But Ford Hamp fell in love with Campbell’s collaborative approach to coaching. He was a former NFL tight end who knew how to connect with players and had even played three seasons in Detroit, giving him a unique insight into the protracted struggle in that city. And wherever he’s gone in the league, he’s left behind a trail of people touting his authenticity and charisma. It appealed to a Lions organization that was still struggling up to its knees to heal the wounds and mistrust left in Matt Patricia’s wake.
Once Holmes and Campbell were in place – and shared control of the list in a new, more open organizational structure, similar to that rolled out by the Rams – they began using phones to trade Stafford. They found a robust market for the big-armed quarterback and drew several bids, including a top 10 pick for the Carolina Panthers.
Then Los Angeles called with an interesting offer: a third-round pick this year, first-round picks in 2022 and 2023, plus Jared Goff.
Carolina’s top-10 pick was appealing, but with tough days ahead as they delivered one of the league’s worst lineups, the Lions enjoyed that extra first-round pick. They also preferred a veteran quarterback like Goff to help stabilize the team during lean times. So on January 30, exactly one week after Stafford was officially put on the trading block, the greatest quarterback in modern Detroit Lions history was traded to Los Angeles.
Things have worked out well so far for Stafford, who ranks in the league’s top five quarterbacks by most measures, including passer rating, yards and QBR. And as the season heads to the home stretch, Los Angeles (11-4) stand alone atop NFC West, positioning Stafford for something he’s never had in a dozen years in this. match: a home playoff match.
The Lions, meanwhile, have already used one of LA’s draft picks to select cornerback Ifetu Melifonwu, who has been slowed down by injury this season but looked promising on the pitch. Now they’re sitting on the first two rounds in each of the next two years, which will give Holmes and Campbell plenty of ammo to speed up the rebuild.
Goff has been more of a mixed bag, struggling poorly for most of the season, in part because of a terrible supporting cast around him. But he’s also played better in recent weeks, throwing nine touchdown passes and just two interceptions in his last four games and posting a 105.1 passer rating. It only followed Stafford and two others across the league, offering some hope that maybe, just maybe, he could help lead an evolving organization into the quagmire after all.
OTHER TOP STORIES OF 2021
Jim Harbaugh leads Michigan to college football playoffs
The historic return of the Chelsea State Football Championship
Little League title returns to Michigan for the first time since 1959
Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera hits 500th career home run
Michigan’s second year turnaround under Mel Tucker